Autism and transsexualism

My essay The Anne Who Would Be Queen elicited several responses from autistic transwomen. In it, I made reference to the work of autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, who has suggested that autism is a sort of ultimate expression of a male brain.

The correspondence below explores the interesting issues raised by these intersecting traits.

From a reader in January 2004

I don't know what you know about autism - there's a lot of prejudice going around, and myth. I have to tell you that since I've found out what I am, it's brightened my life, even if it sounds hard to believe. I'm so grateful, not only to know, but also grateful to be what I am; in spite of everything, it could be worse; I could be one of them. And who are "they"? Precisely the sort of closed minded people who find it necessary to divide everyone into "us" and "them". I don't know if you understand. Probably like you, like most homosexuals, the last thing I could possibly want is a "cure" for my individuality. And you know, I've met some really nice autistic people on the internet, too (the internet is wonderful for people who hate to leave the house and the cats). I haven't met Jim Sinclair, but he has a web site, I thought it might interest you, because he's both autistic and intersexed, and he has essays that almost perfectly describe how I feel about a "cure", and how I feel about sex. They are here:

I was just reading your essay on the spell of science. Has anyone told you what a good writer you are? Anyway, I always found evolutionary psychology interesting, the idea of "culture as an evolutionary arena", memetics, that sort of thing. When you mentioned the idea of consciousness allowing us to rise above bacteria, I thought of what Richard Dawkins calls "metaprogramming", which I think is the only thing which will save humanity from istelf. I should say, the only thing which can save humanity - I have doubts that it ever will. Are you familiar with any of this? Thinking of Simon Baron-Cohen again, one thing that most annoys me is the idea of autistics being more logical/less emotional than the neurologically typical. That, too, I think is nonsense. Any system of logic is based on unprovable postulates, and semantically, if one defines emotion as logical, then in that semantic construct, it is. That's how I look at it. I think of myself as a very emotional creature, but I know that I don't experience emotion in the manner that others do, nor define it as others do, nor can I very well articulate it in a manner that most people will understand. But it is entirely logical to me. Well, not entirely. I'd like to write about that, though I'm afraid I'll bore you, and maybe that fear isn't very logical in the sense that it is largely unconscious. To me, emotions are part conscious and part unconscious, and it's the unconscious part that is likely to be illogical.

From a reader in March 2004

I was just reading the tsroadmap articles about Anne Lawrence, J. Michael Bailey, Ray Blanchard, et al, and I noticed a few things that do not quite fit.

You might find my unique perspective interesting.

The Baron-Cohen Systemizing/Empathizing male/female brain theory has been a topic of hot debate in the transgender autistic community (we have a surprisingly large community), since autism, by definition, brings along a major setback in empathizing and a very high level of systemizing ability. This would seem to deny the possibility of M2F autistic transsexuals. While it is true that we have a much higher incidence of F2M transsexualism in our community (we are split virtually 50/50), we still have a substantial number of M2F transsexuals as well.The interesting part is that, in the autistic community, neither autogynephilia NOR the social-passing-transition model are common. There is even some talk that a typical transition order for autistic transwomen should be SRS->HRT->RLT. From personal experience, this makes a lot of sense.

So if a heavily systemizing group of people can have a substantial, and painful (in my case, to the point that SRS was considered a medical emergency) degree of dysphoria... then what is going on?Well, by virtue of autism, we are usually blind (partially or completely) to the social aspects of gender. Most of us report not knowing that we had a gender problem until puberty, unless we were heavily gender-policed as children. After puberty, dysphoria sets in, and often seems to be testosterone-dependant. The need to transition is intense, and often is not accompanied by any great desire for "fulltime" at all.

Often going fulltime is a learned behavior (much as all our social skills tend to be), or a way of achieving the treatment that is needed for what seems mostly to be pure physical dysphoria. I've never really seen a case where it was the most immediate need in the case of an autistic transsexual.

However, as the body feels more comfortable, and the estrogen starts developing the brain's sex-centers in the correct way, most of us do successfully transition and live as relatively normal autistic women (which means we don't really fit into the neurotypical world, but we do well in the autistic community).

My personal experience is interesting. I'm not especially physically passable (it's just one of those neurotypical things that I don't understand why I'm expected to do), but apparently something about my behavior allows me to live in mid-stealth anyway. Ever since SRS, I've become able to cope very well with my life, my situation. Many transsexuals would consider me a failure; I don't really bother to try to act according to the huge list of social rules on either side, and my outward transition is still in progress, despite being post-op.

However, I live a comfortable life, secure in my own identity and my own body. My personal conclusions, from my interactions with transsexuals of both autistic and neurotypical varieties, are as follows:

1) There are several reasons for transition

2) There is an innate sense of gender-identity, not possessed by everyone but possessed by most, which is unrelated to socialization or genetics.

3) Other, socialized factors may play a role in some people's transition.

4) Other, sexual factors may play a role in some people's transition. I'd suggest that the "court of social interaction" is really no more innately valid than the "court of scalpel" in determining who a person is. Those of us who are disadvantaged socially are perfectly capable of being happy after transition, and have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so.

This is very interesting-- I would like to add it to my new section on theoretical issues. I had another letter from someone else who is autistic, and she made many similar points.

One thing I find interesting is that I have always found socialization to be a very complex set of systemizing with extraordinary levels of nuance. Many people like Anne Lawrence are unable to meet the social threshold required for general acceptance, and Dr. Lawrence is neurotypical as far as I know. I am guessing Lawrence had the same problem pre-transition. Still, Lawrence’s own models of this suggest someone could be transsexual but not transgender. In other words, someone with no gender dysphoria can want genital modification, and Lawrence would claim it is because it turns them on.

I would be interested to hear how eroticism fits into your experience, as this is what most of this argument is about. Lawrence apparently did all this in service of a masturbatory fantasy, and I was wondering what sort of breakdown relationships in your community tend to have. The etymological connections between autism and autoeroticism might be worth exploring.

Actually, there is seldom a connection with autoeroticism in autistics. Many simply have no sexuality of any type whatsoever. Others have relatively normal ones. Out of the dozens of us I know, I think only one identified as having the slightest hint of autogynephilia (and autistics have a very difficult time lying, so they believed it).In my case, I found masturbation disturbing and distasteful, and deeply resented my body forcing me to do it. As soon as HRT removed the need, I stopped doing it. It is entirely possible that a deep-seated hatred for the male sexual desires drove me to begin transition. As I listed below, dysphoria in autistic transwomen seems to be directly linked to testosterone levels, and I am no exception to this. Happiness begins as soon as dysphoria ends. Certainly, this doesn't seem autoerotic, at least not from my vantage point.

A female-type sexuality set in after HRT, and I felt quite comfortable in my body after that (especially now that I'm post-operative).While my experience is certainly different from what neurotypicals seem to describe, there can be little doubt that I had gender dysphoria of some sort, which has been successfully resolved now, even though I am not entirely passing. I also transitioned young, starting HRT at 18, and having SRS at 22. My life before SRS was so acutely painful that I was, in all seriousness, planningsuicide if I could not meet my surgery timeline (I succeeded with 2 weeks to spare, and now have no depressed or suicidal inclinations).

Something else odd to note is that amongst those familiar with autistic people, I have no difficulty with being accepted as female. Even in the general public, I don't seem to have much difficulty, although interacting in person is difficult even without trans issues.

Oh, and about Dr. Lawrence... She has alienated most of the autistic trans community as well, we certainly don't want to claim her as one of our own (she's not). I'm just simply pointing out that the systemizing thing is not the reason she is like she is.